February 8th, 2010 5:33 pm | by JEFF ROSENBERG Music | Posted In: Columns

Extended Q&A with Van Dyke Parks

Van Dyke ParksWell, we don't usually do this, but seeing as how Van Dyke Parks is a living legend and his Portland show is at Mississippi Studios on Wednesday (inconveniently, the same day WW comes out), we decided to run an extended Q&A with him a couple days before the article hit the racks. Enjoy! -Ed.

Van Dyke Parks plays Portland Wednesday. Immediately tweet the following peeps: 1) Beach Boys/Brian Wilson obsessives, 2) students of rock history and 3) anyone interested in the intersection of popular and classical music. Talk about a rare opportunity: Though Parks has made records since 1966, this is the Los Angeles composer/arranger/producer's first concert tour—and it's only four dates long. Even in L.A., Parks seldom performs in public.

Parks' résumé reads like a survey of American entertainment in the second half of the 20th century: He was a child actor with a recurring role on The Honeymooners, a session musician for such '60s legends as the Byrds and Tim Buckley, lyricist for legendary “lost” Beach Boys album Smile, and producer of Randy Newman's and Ry Cooder's first albums and Phil Ochs' last one. Later, Parks headed Warner Bros. Records' Audio-Visual Department, inventing the concept of “music television,” and composed scores for film and TV.

His dark-side-of-Disney arrangements have endeared him to modern musicians, from Joanna Newsom to Silverchair—and, notably, several artists whose parents Parks knew, such as Rufus Wainwright and Lowell George's daughter, Inara. He's accompanied on this mini-tour by Clare and the Reasons, a band led by folk-bluesman Geoff Muldaur's daughter. Parks' own albums include his debut, Song Cycle, a baroque-pop mad-scientist masterpiece replete with puns both verbal and musical; Discover America, beating worldbeat by a decade-plus in introducing Calypso rhythms and repertoire to American ears; and Jump!, which revived the Old South fables of B'rer Rabbit at the dawn of the P.C. era.

Following is a chunk of WW's conversation with the 67-year-old Parks, by phone from his L.A. home.

A live appearance by Van Dyke Parks seems almost like an apparition. Will this be your first visit to Portland?
No, I've been there once before. I came up to play a political rally once, in 1964, with a group called the Brandywine Singers, who had a member whose father was a Senator by the name of Corbett [apparently, State Senator Alfred Corbett, then campaigning for Secretary of State]. Anyway, that was my first introduction to Portland, and my last, and I'm looking forward to coming back!

What is it about Clare Muldaur's music that inspired you to join her for your first-ever tour?
Well, it's very interesting, because, of course, I knew her father, I met him in 1964 when I lived in Cambridge, Mass. Her father was the BMOC in my book, the big man on campus, the most likely to succeed, the most adroit of the white blues singers. He had, really, a vise-like grip on the blues, an unaffected and seamless interpretation of blues. And of course, Geoff was a member of the [Jim] Kweskin Jug Band—

As was Fritz Richmond, who was a Portland resident for much of his life.
Yes, Fritz and I were very good friends, I spoke with him the week he died, and I loved Fritz very much. He was so sweet. And, of course, honored in his time, with induction into the Smithsonian -- one of his basses was put in the Smithsonian.

So there it was, the groundwork was laid, and when Clare came out to California, she introduced herself. In fact, I didn't know she had attended Berklee School of Music. She and her husband went together, which, to me, is a great school, and it suggested she might have some musical ability, and I listened to her music, and I liked it very much. I liked it because it was outside the box, it had some premeditative value, she's thoughtful about it, Olivier, her husband is musically literate, of course, and I thought it would be fun. When she asked me if I would do a co-bill, I thought it would be fun, because I love stringed instruments and so forth, and I admire the individuality of her music, and I was very honored. And I am 67, with a great deal of effort behind me in film and television scoring and a lot of arranging. And basically, just staying in my cubbyhole, I have managed to put three kids through college, which I think is a wonderful thing for a musical racketteer. And when she said, "How 'bout it? Come out on the road!" I thought, well, why not. I didn't have a reason to refuse. So that's what this is all about.

And I assume you'll be bringing a huge entourage and ensemble along? [joking]
No, I'm coming alone, but she and her husband suggested they might help me by backing me up on some of my own repertory, so that's nifty.

So, will you be performing some solo, and some accompanied by The Reasons?
To tell you the truth, I don't know. I just don't know. But it's taken me a long time to learn how to say that and feel comfortable with it. I think that this'll be a great discovery, and we'll have had much rehearsal by the time we hit Portland, so we should sound fine.

You've worked with several "second generation" artists. I like to call them the "folk brats."
Yes, and to great delight. Actually, I started out loving folk music. That's why I entered what became the popular music business. It was all about folk music. And that's where I'm kind of gravitating to again at this point. I'm going up and doing a couple of what one might brand as folk fests in Canada starting in March. I'm real comfortable with that. I like music that is idiomatic, that is closer to the street than to Carnegie Hall. Though I can tell you fairly, I like all music that's good.

But what about working with the kids of your old cohort, like Inara George and Rufus Wainwright?
Well, I find, just generally, in both those cases, I can fairly say, there is no resemblance in the focus of the parent and the child. And that's amazing to me. My favorite blues singer was Howlin' Wolf, as was Lowell George's. I don't think you'd hear a growl from Inara that's close to the blues-centered obsession that was Lowell's trademark. Rufus Wainwright is escapist in his work, highly entertaining, but hardly so fact-bound as Loudon. My favorite blues singer was Howlin' Wolf, as was Lowell George's. I don't think you'd hear a growl from Inara that's close to the blues-centered obsession that was Lowell's trademark. And at the same time, let's look at Rufus Wainwright. Rufus is an escapist, I think, in his work. I look at it as highly entertaining, but hardly so fact-bound or a product of reportage as Loudon's. Rufus, to me, has a fictive value. Loudon has a great value as a person who documents our times. And as a matter of fact, I think Loudon is one of a kind, and i really do believe, to use a hackneyed expression that really applies to him, and brings him honor, is a national treasure. So I look at a lot of this with reserved judgment about what these kids are actually up to.

Do you think it's nature, nurture, or nepotism that's gotten them this far in the music world?
I think it's absolutely the opposite of nepotism. I think these kids make it because, probably, they want desperately to get out of the long shadow that fame brought their parents. I think that it's probably very uncomfortable. My own kids, for example, although they're entirely musical, and certainly as gifted as I am, have run like athletes away from the idea of doing anything that has to do with music. Partly because they've seen the uncertainty of such a job, it takes great deal of sacrifice and family loyalty to pursue a music career. I'm kind of glad that my kids escaped the same dangers that those that you've mentioned have decided to go ahead and entertain. But I've enjoyed those experiences with those kids, that one would think just because they have some legacy, that they are there.

Condolences on the passing of Rufus' mother, whom I believe you knew.
Yes, that was a very difficult moment time for him, because, of course, he was totally close to his mother, and she brought him up singlehandedly. And he found his father late in life, and I'm so glad they have reached, they're past the treaty and into an affectionate relationship.

It's interesting to me that Rufus' most Loudon-esque song, in terms of drawing from personal experience, is his song about his father, "Dinner at Eight", that is most identifiably autobiographical.
Yeah, and Loudon, of course, has externalized a lot of that stuff. They have made trade out of the most intimate aspects of their relationships. That's something that doesn't so much interest me. I don't pay too much attention to that. I don't pay attention to the thoughts that drive the feelings in the music. I've done some arranging for Rufus, but I don't think about the words so much. I thought about words at the time when I served Phil Ochs, and other people who had a great sense of, a similar sense of social recognizance, an interest in improving society, its aims, getting us out of the war, improving race relations, feeding the hungry, thinking about the dispossessed.

Those were the important issues of another age. Now those issues are, in fact, old and in the way. People want to have a good time these days, it seems to me, and the present tense, I think, celebrates what once the French branded as the petit bourgeoisie. I think its a sad state of affairs. I enjoyed being introduced to the music business when music had, songs had, a social content and obsession. I enjoyed that, and it made it all something legit. And it also made people of a lesser musical ability able to be accepted because of what they were saying not how they were saying it.

This year I had a chance to work with two such Sprechstimme [speak-singing] artists, and those would be Bob Dylan, who made it an art form, and Ry Cooder. We were in a movie together [the Howard Zinn documentary, The People Speak; Parks and Cooder accompanied Dylan's performance of Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi".]. I enjoyed that, because they're both giants to me just reminded me where we had come from. Which, of course, is basically all that really drives me, is the study of how we got here. It's what drives my songwriting. And I'm just hoping that there are enough people in Portland who remember who I used to be, to fill the seats. Because my only phobia is walking into a room to play and having an empty seat right in front of me.

Well, Portland is about nothing if not hip cachet, which you have in spades, sir.
Well, that's really a hopeful thought, and I'm going to keep that in mind, but i don't want to disappoint anyone. I think my best work is ahead of me, I plan to do another album, well, I've been doing it, and I think I'm going to let it go sometime around August or September. I'm not going to perform anything from it, because I think i have a greater fear of pirates than has an oiler captain in the Straits of Hormuz. I have been very concerned about getting a fair return for the labor it takes to create songs and that seems like a faint, diminishing aim these days.

I wanted to ask you, in fact, about the effects of new technologies, considering your history with being ahead of the game when it came to videos being used to bolster music, or being another way of communicating for musicians. You sort of foresaw that whole trend, though I don't know if you foresaw the huge impact it would have.
Well, I didn't. I'll tell ya, I did suggest a thing called MTV to [legendary Warner Bros. Records President] Mo Ostin. I was directly under the man in the corporate org. chart, I was directly under the head of the company. And I made movies, but I made them with a profit structure that I hoped would keep artists from having to pursue the ramrod promotion that touring demands. So many people that I knew and loved, and they would include Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, and, of course, Lowell George, and Peter Ivers, and many more who died from drug related deaths, and, I think, all in an effort to stay in the fast lane. So, video, to me, was a way of developing a new revenue stream for artists. And in that respect, what we see in videos of today is entire different. The artist has no participation in any of that.

And if anything, it comes out of their bottom line.
Oh yeah, they're charged for it. So, fortunately, I say that I was a lucky fella to be able to escape the mendacity of the record business, the very creed of greed that killed it. I think executive mismanagement and contract abuse -- Joni Mitchell was the first famous singer to stand up against these things called controlled composition contracts, which is where they pay you for ten songs even if you have sixteen songs on an album.

So, all kinds of things have been done that are not only illegal, but downright felonious. So, copyright abuse didn't start with college students downloading, it started with the very executives, the mice that were guarding the cheese in the record business, and they destroyed it. I got a chance to escape all that, and find a quieter living, I escaped the ravages of fame, I escaped the ravages of touring, and now, I'm curious. Now that I've taken care of my parental obligations, I'm curious about what all that can be, and I'm looking forward to the idea of just sitting in an intimate room and enjoying some music that happened to have been of my own invention.

Did you foresee the impact of the internet on the music business?
No I didn't, actually, to be honest, I didn't see that. And I've always thought that everything would be okay with respect to intellectual property rights. I thought be it would be okay somehow. All that concerned me was the lack of principle in the record business itself. Which is why I absented myself. But I only did it in terms of leaving the industry itself, the management responsibilities of being a bureaucrat at a record company. But in doing that, I found a great life force, and one that has introduced me to serve a whole new generation of artists, and that is to play the job of arranger, which to me is a vital contributive function in the making of album, and I'm quite content in it.

Can you tell me about your extensive arranging work on Joanna Newsom's album, Ys? Were you familiar with her work prior to that project?
No, no, no. She came in to Hollywood, she rented a hotel room and a harp, and asked me to come up and listen to her pieces. And, shoot, I was there for about twenty minutes of arpeggiation, and I told her that if she wanted me to arrange, I wanted to do it, and I wanted to do the whole album. Because I thought she had a tremendous rapture, that she seemed to be in a rapture, and one that I would want to defend, and help channel into a reasonable production.

So I decided on a small orchestra, one that is almost a matter of habit for me; it's as small as a large sound can be, that can still get small. You know what I mean, a string quartet, basically, is in the face. So, if you add a few strings, you get to a point of transparency. And that's what strings can do. So I basically use a string orchestra, with five woodwinds, and one French horn. That's in the case of Joanna, and Inara George as well. Same orchestra. I've used that same orchestra for Rufus, too. I like 'em all. Now I'm working on a record for another chanteuse, a girl from Guatemala, and the whole album is based on a variety or romantic classics from South America and Caribbiana, and it'll have a larger orchestra. And I'm going to debut that album in Denmark, on July 4th, and that'll be a thrill. That is with a much larger orchestra.

What's that artist's name?
Her name is Gaby Moreno, and the festival is called Roskilde. I'll be playing these pieces for an audience of 75,000 people, if you can believe it.

I'll conduct the orchestra, yeah. I have a lot of work to do ahead of that. That's an athletic process for me. But, you know, I wear many hats. I'm now scoring a Dutch picture, today I'm working on one of two arrangements I have to do for a new Australian group. I think it's wonderful to me, to be at the age of 67 and still be allowed to have this opportunity. And I think it's partly a testament to fact that I've always worked very hard, not to be immediately accepted by the fashion of the day, but to know that I did my best work, I couldn't have done any better, and in the process, I think I've created some durable goods, and that has made me a contender as a service for these new musicians. I hope that's the case. I like to believe it is.

Van Dyke Parks plays Mississippi Studios on Wednesday.

Van Dyke Parks
Gaby MorenoSpace
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